By on April 14, 2011


The sustained high speeds at the Real Hoopties of New Jersey 24 Hours of LeMons proved very effective at encouraging rods to throw, bearings to spin, and transmissions to explode into a billion pieces. So, what fails when cheap, tired cars spend hour after hour with pedal affixed firmly to metal?

If Mitsubishi had anything to do with the car in question, as was the case with this unfortunate Plymouth Laser, you can count on catastrophic transmission failure. Actually, you can also count on catastrophic engine failure, if the transmission happens to hold together for an extra hour or so.

We were all impressed by the Laser’s dramatic transmission failure… until the Scuderia Regurgito Fiat 131 came in on the wrecker. I’ve seen this sort of thing happen with drag race cars making monster power, but this car had 86 horsepower when new.

The Fiat’s driver limped away with nothing worse than a big bruise on his leg and a dramatic racing story to tell. We were all very happy that no sharp parts got launched his way.

Small-block Chevy V8s have a truly miserable longevity record in LeMons racing; I’d say that 80% of them suffer some sort of major breakdown during the course of a 24 Hours of LeMons weekend. This one, installed in a 3rd-gen Firebird, lost a connecting rod, which punched a hole in the oil pan, which spewed all its oil on the track and put a hold on the fun for quite a while.

This ex-dirt-track Monte Carlo had no end of troubles with its small block (allegedly a 305, but come on now!). Among its many mechanical woes were the 16 bent pushrods and the fried crankshaft. With minutes remaining before the checkered flag on Sunday, the Monte returned to the track… where it promptly blew up again.

The Saab B/H engine is another ticking time bomb. Oh, sure, the Saab 900 is pretty quick on a road course… for a while.

Then something like this will happen.

You can go ahead and get a replacement engine… but that just means that this will happen.

Speaking of Saabs, what happens when you bolt a turbocharged Saab H to a Nissan transmission using a homemade adapter plate, to make a Saab-powered 300ZX? Transmission hash!

Team Rust In The Wind did some sort of horrifying Field Expedient Engineering kludge on their transmission, fusing the thing in fourth gear and finishing the race that way. For this, they earned the Heroic Fix trophy.

For reasons nobody understands, the Toyota MR2 is the world’s most efficient engine-bearing-destroying device ever to hit the road. Rod bearings, main bearings, cam bearings; if it’s a bearing and it’s inside a Toyota engine, the MR2 will find a way to spin it. For a while, the prevailing theory was that the combination of Toyota A engine and MR2 cooling system and/or oil pan was causing overheating and oil starvation in turns (the A also fails with depressing regularity when installed in Corollas and Celicas, though nowhere near as often as in the MR2), but then we started seeing various Toyota V6s installed in MR2s and they failed as well. You can read the story of how the Schumacher Taxi Service got screwed by their 3VZ-powered MR2 here. In fact, Toyota engines, including the allegedly bulletproof 20/22R, have fared pretty badly in LeMons racing.

With all this carnage, we had the usual “Here we go again” sinking feeling when we saw theSpeedycop Galaxie limp off the track and burst into engine-compartment flames. This car has Ford 302 power, and the Ford Windsor has demonstrated extremely iffy reliability in LeMons racing; it’s not quite as bad as the small-block Chevy, but I’ve seen dozens of 302s and 351s put rods through oil pans over the last few years. Fortunately, this time the 302 in question had just popped a power-steering hose.

Down there with the Chevy in the reliability department, the Honda B engine has but one desire during a grueling endurance race: set my connecting rods free! Actually, the Honda D and H engines are nearly as bad, though the D tends to blow head gaskets more often than it throws rods.

So, what engines don’t blow up in LeMons racing? The Ford Modular 4.6 has been quite a LeMons survivor. The Chrysler Neon engine holds up well under the abuse of a LeMons race. Nissan SR engines have been good. Volkswagen engines? Nein!

If you’ve got 3D glasses, be sure to check out my 3D photo gallery at Cars In Depth, where you’ll see the busted parts coming right at you.

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26 Comments on “Drivetrain Torture Test: What Goes Wrong?...”


  • avatar

    If an engine goes it usually says more about the ‘know it all’ that prepared it. I know Saab engines putting out 230bhp (no turbo) for 5 seasons know. Pointing at the engine is pointing at yourself

    • 0 avatar
      spank

      Bring it to LeMons. Because you’re comparing $500 apples to $500 apples, right?

    • 0 avatar
      Twin Cam Turdo

      Well said Mr Swart.
      Add to that the skill of the driver.
      As little as one missed downshift will kill nearly anything.

    • 0 avatar
      Detroit-Iron

      Maybe it wasn’t clear from the article, but LeMons is a race.  Perhaps you were unaware, but racing is very hard on cars.  So hard, in fact, that even F1 has rules about how often a team is permitted to rebuild their engines and transmissions.  Furthermore, the cars are ‘supposed’ to cost less than $500, excluding safety gear, so  de facto the cars have to be in rough shape or they will get a a bullshit factor penalty (or worse) for going over budget.  You should check out Murilee’s site sometime.

    • 0 avatar
      bikegoesbaa

      I don’t know if you’ve been to or participated in a Lemons race, but for most teams “preparing the engine” consists of changing fluids and (maybe) plugs.
      Very few teams are running built engines, unless you consider replacing blown head gaskets to be “built”.

    • 0 avatar
      Jellodyne

      Tough to squeeze those forged internals and other race specific goodies into a $500 budget.

      • 0 avatar
        Franzouse

        It’s possible, if you’re really good at bribing judges.
        I hear booze, good food, and interesting automotive tchotchkes will get your car the much-coveted “bribed” stencil.

  • avatar
    FuzzyPlushroom

    The Chrysler Neon engine holds up well under the abuse of a LeMons race.

    So they’re like Alfas – the best way to keep ‘em reliable is to thrash on ‘em like you hate ‘em? Hmm.

    I’m not too surprised by EA827 reliability, but I also suspect part of that might be from eating transaxles before the engine can take too much strain…?

    Oh, and Volvos seem to have done well if I recall correctly, which isn’t much surprise (at least with the AW7* automatic). Z-cars, on the other hand…

  • avatar
    detlump

    Good story about reliability in LeMons.  I am sure that future racers will take this into account when selecting a trusty steed.

  • avatar
    mechimike

    Interestingly, the famous Volvo Red Engines (b18, b20) have not been nearly as bulletproof for us on the track as they have a reputation for being on the street.  I have used Volvo Amazons with b18′s and b20′s as daily drivers and long distance trip cars for years now, and never has one left me stranded.  Yet in 5 races, we’ve gone through 4 b-series engines in our Amazon.  All the failures have been connecting rod bearings. 

    All I can conclude is that LeMons is some twisted alternative dimension automotive vortex where the reliable engines become time bombs, and the unreliable engines become the workhorses.  This being the case, I have to conclude when Slant Sixes start appearing at LeMons events, they’re going to blow up with alarming regularity.

    • 0 avatar
      DaveG

      On the other hand, the B230F in our Volvo 240 HAS been as bulletproof as advertised. It had 216K miles on it when the odometer stopped working, and four LeMons races since then, including the carnage-record-breaking one in this article. In all those races, all we’ve ever had to do is change the oil, change the plugs, and check that all the hoses are attached. (Oh yeah, and we replaced the water pump.) I’ve probably just jinxed us now.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      I’ve said it before: racing and daily driving are very different conditions.
       
      Race engines need to survive for short, exciting periods and (LeMons possibly excepted) usually get lots of attention from mechanics to keep them in top shape during and between races.  The engine in your grandmother’s Corolla needs to run for an hour or two, every day, for ten-plus years of casual neglect.  That, and that the engine is only a small part of what a customer experiences in a car.
       
      I recall reading somewhere that Honda’s lets it’s engineers work on race engines first and commodity automotive engines only after they’ve been around a while.  I believe it.  I’ll also believe that it’s why Audi can make LeMans winners but can’t make an sedan that lasts six months past the warranty period without requiring significant repair.

    • 0 avatar
      Kosher Polack

      “the reliable engines become time bombs, and the unreliable engines become the workhorses.”
      I want to know what happens to Wankels. Seems like they’d have high-rpm conditions cut out for them, right?

    • 0 avatar
      turbobrick

      Has anyone tried to bring a slant six powered car to these things yet? Surely someone has. Or are they being stopped at the BS inspection for being too reliable and therefore cheating?-)

      • 0 avatar
        noxioux

        I also wonder about other straight sixes, like the Ford 300, Nissan, or Toyota straight-sixes.  Didn’t a Nizzan/Datsun Z do fairly well recently?  A crap Pintostang with a decently breathing 300, perhaps?
        What about the Subaru boxer engines?

    • 0 avatar
      mechimike

      I guess in fairness to our Amazon, only the first blow’d up engine was really the engine’s fault.  The second engine was a 300,000 mile core that had been sitting in a puddle in my garage for 3 years and only had 30 psi of oil pressure at 6000 RPM when I pulled it out of the car it was in.  Frankly, I’m surprised it ran at all, ever.  And the third engine was running great, until somone on the team forgot to tighten the oil drain plug.  D’oh!

      Oh well, oil between the bearings, now that the car’s been wrecked and has been repurposed into a mosquito, wasp, and kudzu breeding experiment in my front yard.

    • 0 avatar
      mzs

      This is probably too involved for a lemons car but you might at least machine some parts for looser fits:

      http://applefarmerracing.com/car.html

      “Old Volvo pushrod engines are inherently very strong, but what kills them in racing conditions is high oil temperature – all that bearing surface that makes them last forever in street use generates a lot of friction, and friction generates heat.”

  • avatar
    tallnikita

    this is priceless!

  • avatar
    Morea

    As far as engines go, it seems that LeMons tests high-rpm durability while street driving tests low-rpm durability.   LeMons may also be a good test of sustained high temperature operation.
     
    Keep the observations coming, that will help to even out the engine prep/missed shifts/ bad luck fluctuations in the data.
     
     

  • avatar
    Buzz Killington

    the ford 4.6 is amazing.  we thought we were sunk at Gingerman when on Friday our Crown Vic’s used oil looked like someone had ground up 3 bucks’ worth of pennies in it, but that thing kept on running like a champ.  maybe the fact that it leaked 3 quarts of oil every half hour had something to do with it.

  • avatar

    Honda engines are very dependable… with religious maintenance.

  • avatar
    I_Like_Pie

    ““the reliable engines become time bombs, and the unreliable engines become the workhorses.””

    I think that the $500 price is coming into play here too.  A $500 neon is basically any used neon that is going to the next owner as a daily driver. A $500 Honda Civic or Toyota is going to be a real stinker on its last page of life.

    • 0 avatar
      mechimike

      I think you’ve hit on something.  When the power windows crap out and the A/C quits wheezing and the leather seats get a little tattered, no one’s going to want to keep that BMW on the road, but I’ve seen some pretty battered Accords and Camrys and Civics trade hands for a grand or more.  It all has to do with resale value.  Neons?  No one I know would want to DD a Neon, hence decent used ones are pretty cheap.  That may explain the uncanny success of Alfas in the series, too. 

  • avatar
    Morea

    Actually, Alfa has traditionally made tough engines, the unreliable bits lurk elsewhere.


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